O's Hairston awaits turn in infield traffic

March 06, 2000|By John Eisenberg

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Jerry Hairston made his point politely and without a hint of resentment, but firmly.

One way or another, he wants to play in Baltimore this year.

"As the starting second baseman, as the utility guy or, I don't care, as the closer," he said yesterday after the Orioles beat the Florida Marlins, 7-5, in a Grapefruit League game at Fort Lauderdale Stadium. "It doesn't matter. Wherever they want to put me. I just want to make the team."

And if the Orioles send him back to Triple-A, where, everyone agrees, he has nothing left to prove?

"I'll do it," he said grudgingly, then he paused and laughed. "There are two things I worry about -- not serving God right and not keeping my fiancee happy. If I do those things right, I'm doing OK."

Hairston, 23, is in the toughest situation of any Oriole in camp -- deserving of the starting job at second base and certainly a spot on the team, but thwarted by a blend of circumstances beyond his control.

It doesn't matter that he deserves the shot, or that the fans want to see him in the lineup, or that, if anything, the Orioles should give him the job just to prove their beleaguered minor-league system can develop a major contributor.

Delino DeShields, the veteran with the three-year, $12 million contract the club regrets, is going to play second for now, primarily to raise his trade value.

Jesse Garcia, Hairston's teammate in the minors during the past two years, is penciled in as the utility infielder.

That leaves no role for Hairston, who sparkled last season in a 50-game audition when DeShields was injured, instantly becoming a fan favorite.

To Hairston's credit, he isn't pouting or sulking, a response indicative of a veteran-like attitude that has impressed the coaches. But he also has opened a campaign to land a spot somewhere on the major-league roster, a desire that could leave the Orioles with another tough decision.

"Last year, I knew if I didn't play every day in the big leagues, I was going to play every day in Triple-A, and I totally understood that," Hairston said. "But now it's like, OK, I still want to play every day in the big leagues, but if not, I've experienced the big leagues and I know I can help this team win, and I can come out and fill in at shortstop or second or maybe even in the outfield. Wherever they want to put me, I'm willing."

He has backed up his campaign with an increased workout program involving taking ground balls at shortstop and third base, as well as second, and even a few in the outfield.

"He's being smart," said third base coach Sam Perlozzo, who oversees the drills. "No one told him to do the extra work. He just started doing it. It's impressive. He's got an attitude where he thinks he is good, which is good, everyone should believe that. But he's set that aside and used his brain to say, `I want to do what I can to be on the club. If I'm not starting, I'm going to show the manager I should be here in some role.' "

None of this changes the Orioles' long-range plan for Hairston, which is clear: He is their future at second base once DeShields is out of the way.

But what about now? Does he go back to Rochester, where he hit .291 last season, to get as much playing time as possible? Or does he jump to the Orioles ahead of Garcia because he is the superior talent?

"I can see Jerry in the [utility] role," manager Mike Hargrove said yesterday. "He came up [through the minors] as a shortstop, and he tells me he played a lot of third in college. We'll have to see. The pros [of keeping him] are you'd have a guy with some speed coming off the bench who can play three infield positions and swing the bat. The con is you'd have a guy projected as your everyday second baseman someday not getting everyday playing time. We'll weigh those things and make a decision."

Either way, Hairston's attitude is critical. He isn't going to get the starting job in Baltimore that he covets and warrants, so the Orioles are depending on him to handle his disappointment appropriately.

"My dad talked to me about it," said Hairston, whose father and grandfather also were major leaguers. "He said you have to wait your turn. Last year, he told me if you want to play every day in the big leagues, you have to play every day in the minors first. I did that. This year, I can't control what they do. So my approach is that I'm just getting ready for the season."

It's a time for him to exhibit patience, a time to stand back and just let the Orioles' front office shenanigans and the game's bizarre economics and realities play themselves out.

So far, so good.

"You can't help but like what you see, in his game as well as his attitude," Perlozzo said.

But make no mistake: He wants to be an Oriole. Now.

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